Four Things Absolutely Necessary in Order to Learn Anything

It happened to me again recently. After presenting (what I thought was) a fairly balanced review of a subject and stressing that there really was no way to come up with a definitive answer regarding a specific question, I had someone come up to me and declare that s/he followed  the opinion of someone who has been dead for 40 years, and was not that much of a scholar to begin with. This person was in no mood to change his or her mind, and was quite emphatic about that point.

Sigh. Some days you just cannot win.

But, it did get me to thinking. What is the absolute, rock bottom necessity in order to learn something? I came up with four qualities. Maybe you can add another or two.

  1. Curiosity. If you hear or read something once, and are never curious about that subject again, you will never learn anything about that subject. Curiosity about anything is the first requirement to learning.
  2. Humility. If you think you know everything, or that your conclusion is perfect, you will never learn anything. In order to learn a person has to accept that (1) his or her knowledge may be limited or imperfect in some form or fashion and (2) someone else may be more knowledgable about that subject. Education is, on one basic level, an exercise in humility.
  3. Energy. It takes effort to learn. A person has to read, or listen intently, has to investigate and construct questions and responses to questions. Learning is laborious, and quite frankly, many people just do not have the energy it takes to correct mistaken opinions or to learn new facts.
  4. Adaptability. Learning something means we have to change, to adapt our thinking, and often times adapt our behavior. This requires a rather significant investment sometimes, and to be fair, sometimes that investment is just more than some can handle. I chose the word investment for a good reason, though, and the ability to adapt to knew knowledge pays huge dividends for future growth.

I have to admit I am an inveterate student about just about everything in my life. I consider that a tremendous blessing given to me by my parents, and nurtured by some amazing teacher (who were also life-long learners). And, admission number two, it just really rubs my fur the wrong way when someone comes up to me and attempts to dismantle my presentation with the uneducated, shallow musings of someone who has been dead for four decades, and who could honestly be described as someone who stopped learning the moment he crafted an opinion.

But, that is just me, and I know that not everyone shares my (admittedly jaundiced) view of blindly following someone or something that we read half a century ago.

Your thoughts?

How to Spot a Fake, and a Real, Expert

Okay, a little background here. I have been blessed (?) with a little extra free time recently, so I have been doing some extra cleaning, some gardening, and generally just trying to keep my mind, and fingers, busy. Last week my wife, her mother, and our daughter went for one of my wife’s regular check-ups. I had even more time on my hands. So I started “surfing” You Tube. I watched this and that, and then I came across a firearms professional by the name of Paul Harrell. I watched one show, and then another, and then another.

If you are even remotely interested in firearms (I am by no means a gun nut, but I do hold an appreciation for them) you owe it to yourself to watch a Paul Harrell video. They are mostly around 20 minutes long and packed with a lot of cool demonstrations and advice.

So, anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah –

Paul Harrell has two episodes in which he discusses (1) how to spot a fake expert in the field of firearms, and (2) how to spot a real expert. The first list  (he gives five clues) is really focused on firearms, so it is really not pertinent to theology. However, his discussion on how to spot a real expert is spot-on perfect. The two episodes really struck a nerve with me, and so I decided to see if I could modify his first list to give five ways to spot a fake Bible or theological expert, and I will give his three ways to spot a real Bible or theological expert along with some “expert” comments of my own.

HOW TO SPOT A FAKE BIBLE OR THEOLOGICAL EXPERT:

  1.  They know nothing about the subject at hand, and really do not have any way to have learned about the subject. This is so obvious when someone, even many preachers, attempt to prove a point by referring to the original Greek or Hebrew. They are not an expert in Greek or Hebrew (or archaeology, or Ancient Near Eastern culture, etc) but they really want you to think they are. They are fakes.
  2. They have read a book, or attended a seminar, or maybe they have only heard a sermon, but they are an expert anyway. These are the one trick ponies – how many times have you been regaled by an “expert” who has read exactly one book on the subject, and even that by a non-expert himself. I am so familiar with this through my experience with Dietrich Bonhoeffer “experts.” They might have read Discipleship or maybe Life Together, and all of a sudden they are “experts” on one of the most enigmatic and multi-faceted theologians of the 20th century. No they are not! They are fakes, and need to be called out as such.
  3. They come to a conclusion and then argue backwards. How many of you have heard a sermon or attended a class on John 2, and based solely on the conclusion that Jesus would never corrupt anyone or lead them to sin, prove that the wine he created was nothing more than grape juice (not sure whether it was Welches or Ocean Spray, but never mind). Well, the text clearly indicates that the wine was of such superior quality that it was disturbing to the master of ceremonies that a social miscue had occurred. But, what of the first conclusion? Did Jesus never give anyone the opportunity to sin? He healed on the Sabbath, driving many to seek to kill him! Is murder not a sin? He raised people from the grave – were they exempted thereby from ever sinning again? I will firmly assert that Jesus never tempted anyone to sin, but why would creating wine for a wedding festival be considered a temptation? If that is true, then God himself is the greatest source of temptation in the whole world! (Didn’t he create everything?) You see, if you come to a conclusion first, and then argue backwards to prove your point, you can be an expert (although fake) at anything.
  4. Closely connected, they fall back into the “everyone knows” something argument, therefore never needing to prove their point. “Everyone knows” is the ultimate trump card – so if you disagree you are obviously not part of “everyone,” and who wants to be a nobody! But “everyone knows” is a pathetic appeal to ignorance that proves that the speaker is really a super fake expert, and they need to be told to bring their evidence with them next time.
  5. Finally, fake experts are simply terrified to be imperfect – their entire life and well being are dependent upon their being superior in every detail of every subject. They teach in abject fear that someone, somewhere might know more than them, or be able to prove them wrong, so they surround themselves with sycophants and those who are absolutely bedazzled with their superior intellect. This is why when they are challenged in public, so many of them have a cadre of defenders that shout the challenger down. The grand guru is simply not to be questioned. Fakes never like to have their metal proven, so they rarely speak without their body (and reputation) guards handy.

Okay, let’s move on to Paul Harrell’s three ways to spot a real expert, and I will add some comments of my own (clearly marked with a bold heading).

HOW TO SPOT A REAL EXPERT: (FROM PAUL HARRELL)

  1. How they deal with the unknown. Real experts want to learn, to be corrected if they are mistaken, and are curious about new developments in their field. Comment: This is so true in Bible studies! I had the blessing of studying under some of the finest true experts in their respective specialties, and each one of them demonstrated this trait. They studied, they read, they attended seminars, they wrote for fellow specialists to critique. They never stopped learning. True, honest experts deal with the unknown in humble, seeking, searching ways. And they are quick to respond graciously when they are taught something new.
  2. Real experts avoid using absolute terms like “always” and “never.” Because, connected to point #1, real experts know that there is always (oops) something new to learn, even if they are specialists in a field, especially one as diverse and expanding as firearms. Comment: need anything be said here beyond Paul Harrell’s comment? Using absolute terminology gets a person in dangerous ground very quickly, and biblical experts rarely use such words (although, I don’t want to say never!) So many times in Bible study we want certainty – we want absolutes where there simply are none. An expert will admit this (exposing his lack of omniscience), but a fake will not. A fake will give the audience what they are searching for, often illegitimately.
  3. Real experts look the part without looking like they are in a costume. This one is a little tricky, but there is simply a sense of “genuineness” that an expert portrays, that a fake cannot. A fake may dress up like an expert (and use all the right words), but they just do not fit the part. Comment: Once again, this is so true in church settings. If you cannot be an expert, all you have to do is become a bully by impression and fancy language. Real story – I know of an individual who was hired to perform a function that was, apparently, beneath his view of himself. So, he had everyone refer to him with a title that he had not earned and he was not qualified to wear. He even wore a garment that would verify his fake title, and the very fact that he wore it demonstrated how much of a fake his title was. The thing is, the title he could have worn was respectable, and he had earned the right to wear it. But, it was just not “expert” enough, so he made himself to be more important by claiming something that was utterly fake.

In most of our churches there are real experts, and there are fake experts. We are probably each experts in something – at one time I was almost an expert in issues related to Cessna 402 and 404 aircraft. Today, I doubt I could get one off the ground. I know nothing about farming or cattle ranching, but if you ask me about Dietrich Bonhoeffer I can give you a fairly educated answer. I would starve to death if I had to earn a living repairing cars or welding something, but let me teach a class on the book of Revelation and I can give you your money’s worth. Just because you are not an expert in Greek does not mean that you cannot teach a class on the gospel of Matthew – just don’t try to fool anybody with knowledge you do not have.

So, there you have one of my favorite all time posts about theology, and it came from watching a bunch of You Tube videos about guns.

Who would have thunk it?

Are You Hungry for Bible Study?

Yesterday I opined that far too often in Sunday school settings we settle for the simple, trivial answers to questions. Often that is exactly, and only, what the teacher is searching for. It is a process that has been ingrained in those of us who have been in church class settings for most of our lives. We learn it early in childhood, and the template never changes. Questions are meant to keep the class moving, and if anyone offers a deeper, or different, answer than that which is expected, the whole process bogs down and we actually have to think. I believe there are a number of reasons why we have fallen into this slovenly routine.

First, these surface level answers are a great equalizer. Everyone has heard that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the New Testament, and everyone (or most everyone) has access to Hebrews 11:1 as the answer to the definition of faith. If someone raises their hand and answers with the same answer that I was going to give, I can feel good about myself, and equally feel good about my neighbor.

These answers are also simple – in the sense that there is no complexity to them that requires further examination. Once we learn that the entire point to the parable of the “Good Samaritan” is that if we see someone beside the road that is beaten and half-dead we are supposed to put them on our donkey and carry them to the nearest inn, we have the text mastered and we can get ready for the worship service. The thing about the parables (or at least, many of them) is that they made the original audience furious with  Jesus. If we somehow do not get that edge as we read these stories, haven’t we totally missed the point? In other words, there is much about the Bible that is complex, and it is exactly in that complexity that we are to see ourselves and recognize our sinfulness. To turn every story into a third grade morality play is a horrible way to study the Bible!

I guess that gets me to my third point, and really my major point. We are just lazy students of the Bible. When, for example, was the last time you have really been challenged by a Bible class? If you are a teacher, when was the last time you really made your students uncomfortable? We want the easy, the simple, the milk. Teaching classes that challenge is hard work – it requires hours, not minutes, of preparation, and it requires a mind-set that not only allows for challenging discussion, but actually fosters it. It means actually having to tell a student that his or her response is wrong, or maybe not wrong but inadequate. That means risking upsetting a member, and we all know that is a sin that cannot be committed! Being a student in a class that provokes both thought and response is equally discomforting. It means my cherished answers might, in reality, be wrong. It means I might have to actually listen to my classmate as he or she shares a response that I have not considered before. It means that I might actually have to read ahead and come to class prepared to engage with the material (heaven forbid!!).

To push that point just a little further – when was the last time you assigned an outside book, or were requested to buy an outside book, as the basis for a Bible class? Once upon a time that was the norm – now it is almost unheard of. I think I have a pretty good idea why we have stopped doing that. One, making someone buy a book is just so gauche – it might be expensive (and we can’t make the church actually pay for educational material) or it means that a student is actually engaged with the class subject; two, it might be written by someone “outside the faith” and we cannot under any circumstances be challenged by someone else’s thinking; or three, materials written by our “sound brothers” are just so insipid that there really is no point in buying the book, because they only reinforce the trivial answers that we were going to give anyway. Whatever the reason, I just see fewer and fewer outside reading materials being mandated as supplemental texts.

So much has been said and written about why churches are losing members. Entire forests of trees have been cut down to make paper that has been compiled into books with answers to that question. Could it be, is it even possible, that one very real reason so many younger people are leaving the church is that they come hungry for Bible study and leave even hungrier?

How many times will you go to a restaurant and, instead of the sumptuous entree that you ordered, receive a bowl of cold cereal “because it was easier for the cook to prepare.”

Yea, I thought so.

Teachers, either challenge your students to deeper Bible study, or let someone else teach. Church, demand your teacher give you more than these trivial platitudes. Let us get back to serious Bible study!

The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

Questions (?)

My last post introduced a question about a text in the gospel of Mark (no, not 16:9-20, but that’s a good one too). It is a question for which I have no solid, concrete, irrefutable answer. Many people don’t like that. Their entire faith is built on the existence of solid, concrete, irrefutable answers to every question. In fact, they don’t even like the existence of questions, period. For them, the Christian life is one big, solid, irrefutable truth.

Does your preacher/pastor/priest allow you to ask questions? Are questions allowed in your Bible classes? I don’t mean the childish or self-promoting questions that are intended to trip up the teacher or to promote the superior intellect of the questioner. While we are at it, I do think there are stupid questions – only because the intent is deceptive and mean-spirited. I do not believe any question that has as its focus the desire to learn should be considered “stupid.”

Returning to the topic at hand – what is the official, or even maybe more important the unofficial, policy regarding questions where you worship? Without knowing anything at all about your church, I can fairly confidently make one declaration – if your preacher/pastor/priest or church leadership does not allow, and even encourage, honest, seeking questions then you are a part of a sick church.

I am blessed, richly blessed, to have been able to ask questions in my youth and young adulthood. Like most twenty-somethings, at the ripe old age of, say, 22, I was pretty confident I knew all there was to know, or at least all that was needed to know. That came to a pretty emphatic end. Then, I entered a second phase of my education – my masters degrees – in which I came to realize that maybe I did not even know the right questions to ask. Flash forward some 20+ years and in my doctoral studies I came to yet a third realization about questions: sometimes the question is far more valuable than any answer that is purported to solve it.

Pause for a moment and consider Jesus’s parables. How many of the parables are really open ended questions? Oh, we try to tidy them up and make them self-contained little stories complete with moral and application. I think this just illustrates our ambivalence, or actual irritation with questions. “Just get to the point and move on, preacher!” “Don’t leave the sermon hanging on a question, give me something I can apply in my life!” As a good friend once pointed out in a class on the parables, we want to sanitize the parables and derive and answer that implicates the Pharisees or the Sadducees so that we do not have to deal with the messy, and very problematic, possibility that Jesus is telling the parable to implicate OUR behavior.

I cannot help but believe that one reason so many young people are leaving the church (well, young and middle aged and old) is because the decades that we have spent denying or limiting the honest and seeking question have finally come home to roost. Yes, I am well aware of the research into why people are abandoning the church, and I think each of them has validity. But, thinking back to my teen years, I really do not remember a time in which my Sunday school teacher welcomed us asking questions. My parents allowed me to question, to be sure, and I think maybe that is just one of the reasons why I am so confident in my faith today. I do not believe because I have all the answers, I believe in spite of my questions and my inability to answer them, because I believe there is a God in whom I can trust.

In re-reading this post something occurred to me – I have been “trained” in two different evangelistic methods, and both of them emphatically reject the value of the student asking any questions. The “evangelist” is to deflect every question, to refuse to answer any curiosity the student may have, and is taught to stay “on subject” throughout the entire lesson. Wow. How  completely un-Christ like. What these methods teach, unconsciously for sure, is that the teacher has all the answers, all the truth, and that questions are not and will not be allowed in this church. Just believe what I am telling you and keep your questions locked away.

How utterly pathetic. Not every question has equal value, to be sure. Some questions are “red herrings” meant to deflect attention from a particularly troublesome aspect of the lesson. I get that. But to reject every question? To suggest that no question is worthy of discussion? To imply that the teacher turn a deaf ear to the honest and searching aspect of a seemingly benign question – these are just repugnant concepts to me. Thank goodness Jesus was never trained in these evangelistic methods.

I hope that if you are in a situation where you cannot honestly and faithfully ask a question, that you will be able to find a place where that is allowed. Just remember, Jesus never rejected an honest question – in fact he almost went out of his way to create them. Do not ever settle for a spiritual home in which questions are forbidden.

Ahimelech, Abiathar, and the Historical Preciseness of Scripture

Don’t ask me how I got here – it is a LONG story.

Anyway, the question of the identity of the priest who gave David the bread of the presence came into my mind. For review, read 1 Samuel 22:6-23. There the priest to whom David sought provisions was identified as Ahimelech, son of Ahitub. The story creates at least one significant question of its own, as David was not supposed to eat of the bread period (he was clearly not a Levite), but Ahimelech seemed to be okay with letting David have the old bread to eat, so long as David’s men were ceremonially clean.

Now, the question arises in Mark 2:23-28 where Jesus uses this story as a defense for his disciples plucking a few heads of grain to nibble on one Sabbath day. In the gospel, Jesus clearly identifies the priest (actually refers to him as the “high” priest) as Abiathar, who is named as Ahimelech’s son in the story in Samuel. This conundrum has created no small amount of discussion and debate, and I would caution anyone who claims to know the solution to be very wary – no one except Jesus himself knows why he gave a different name to the priest than the Samuel story.

I, of course, have a truly brilliant and astoundingly simple answer to the question. I don’t know. Now, that is not to say that I don’t have a theory, an educated guess, but my answer and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee at your nearest foofy coffee house.

I did not begin this post to solve the problem. I have another fish to fry.

This question (among others) points to a critical issue in reading and interpreting Scripture. There are two equally wrong approaches to facing questions like these. One is to throw up our hands, declare that the Bible is full of contradictions and errors and that we cannot possibly believe any part of it. The other error is to stick our head in the sand and deny the contradiction, or, as a variant, pull out a can of grease and a crow bar and try to manipulate our supposedly more correct and efficient answer to the problem(s). The critical error for both of these responses is that for centuries these discrepancies simply were not interpretive issues for Christians. They were noted and sometimes discussed, to be sure, but they were not viewed with the sinister dread that we have attached to them. And I want to make clear – the manner in which some Christians attempt to make these discrepancies disappear is proof that they are terrified of their existence. Fear is a lousy motivator for textual study!

Those who believe in God’s inspiration of Scripture simply cannot pretend these discrepancies do not exist (1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1 is just another example – was it Satan or the LORD that incited David to count the people?) But we do not have permission to force twenty-first century scientific preciseness on the Scriptures either. Many of the so-called “solutions” I have read concerning these conundrums do far greater damage to the theory of inspiration and the integrity of the Bible than the discrepancies themselves!

I, for one, do not want to minimize, nor do I want to over-stress, these problems. I am not going to throw the Bible away due to their presence, and I am not going to force my altogether human hubris onto the text and say what the Holy Spirit “must” have intended, but somehow was just too clumsy to say.

Reading Scripture is an exercise in humility. We place ourselves under the text, not over it. We face problems squarely head-on, and use the intellect that God gave us to provide answers where possible. We go as far as the text leads us, and honestly and humbly suggest that anything further is our own conjecture and is open to correction or rejection.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and I am convinced that far too many defenders of the Bible have lost that fundamental truth.

The Commencement Speech No One Will Ever Hear

Ah, the end of May and the beginning of June. Time for graduations far and near. And so, completely unrequested and with the full knowledge that it will never be given verbatim, here is the commencement speech I believe is truly the only one that is worth hearing. The intended audience is, obviously, a group of men just commencing their journey as ministers of the gospel.

Friends, graduates, fellow academicians, lend me your ears. I come not to praise you, but to bury you. For only if you have been buried can you send forth new life – and it is to a new life that we send you today. Prepare, then, to have a little dirt thrown your way.

First, I congratulate you. This is indeed a momentous occasion for you. You have, to use Paul’s epic words, “fought with the beasts” and you have emerged victorious. Not everyone can do what you have just done. Not many would want to, mind you, but whether they did or not, they could not finish what you have finished. By your presence here you have demonstrated that you have mastered the art of translating Greek and Hebrew sentences, that you can differentiate between exegesis and hermeneutics, and that you can hold your own in written debate with the likes of N.T. Wright. Your guides, your shepherds, your academic guardians have all attested to your intellectual fitness to hold the degrees which will be conferred to you. Your parents, your siblings, and perhaps your spouses all hold you in the highest esteem. Today is truly a great day.

Get over it.

I’m serious. Enjoy the day to its fullest. Bask in the limelight while it is still shining brightly. Dine sumptuously. Drink deeply of all the huzzahs and congratulations. But, this is just the beginning. If you stopped growing following the great celebration of the day of your birth, you would not be here today. Today is the beginning, not the end. That’s why we call it a “commencement.” But there is another, darker reason why I counsel you to “get over it.” You will learn of this reality all too soon.

I know each of you is committed to a life of ministry – whether in a congregational ministry or perhaps in an academic post or a missionary field. You have no thoughts of failure, or of abandoning your quest. Sadly, the statistics of life-long ministry do not support your optimism. Amid the unbridled euphoria and the sweet fragrance of success that floods the room today, let me caution you about what your future holds. It will not be pretty.

Let me use, as a parable, my life first as a flight student and then as a flight instructor to illustrate my words of warning. As a flight student the second greatest day that you experience is the day you solo – the day that you control the airplane as sole occupant. The feeling is simply beyond description. You know you are up to the task, and your flight instructor has endorsed you to do just that – fly the plane by yourself. But you know, in the back of your mind, that you are still flying on the legal basis of your flight instructor. You can take off and land by yourself, but you are not a pilot. You still have much to learn, much to observe. The talent is there, but it is raw, unrefined. For better or worse, and mostly for the better, your instructor is there to teach, to discipline, to correct, and to protect you throughout the various phases of instruction you have yet to complete.

Chances are you all have experienced something similar to “going solo” while in school. Perhaps you have worked as an intern with a congregation. Perhaps you have even initiated a new ministry, or have taken an existing ministry to a higher level of effectiveness. The euphoria of such endeavors is intoxicating, indeed. But you know, just as the fledgling flight student, that you are still operating on the license of an instructor. You still have the grace, and the forgiveness, of being “just a student.” Those words can be grating, but they are also powerful deterrents against unfair and undeserved attacks. So you serve, as we have all served, under the protecting label of “capable, but not yet quite mature.” The label is at the same time irritating and assuring. You’re getting there, but if the air gets a little turbulent, there is always a more seasoned hand to take the controls.

Some time later comes the one single greatest day in the process of your flight instruction – the day you take your final flight examination. After you land and shut the airplane down, the FAA flight examiner leans over, shakes your hand, and says, “Congratulations, you are a private pilot.” Now you no longer have to ask permission to fly. Now you are truly the master of your own ship. Now you can utter those immortal words, “the sky is the limit.” Oh, the joy!

Except, now the responsibility is ALL YOURS. Now you no longer have the comfort of blaming your instructor. Now when the FAA comes calling, you can not look over your shoulder for your big brother. The world gets a lot smaller, even when it just seemed to open up beyond every horizon. When you fly on your own certificate, you suddenly seem to take all the little decisions a whole lot more seriously. What about the weather? How much weight do I have on the plane? How much fuel do I really need? Have I really gone over my flight plan as seriously as I need to? One bad decision and the FAA can take that little piece of paper away and you have to start all over. Or, worse, lives and property can be at stake.

Today, you have earned your wings. Today we shake your hand and say, “Congratulations, you are now a fully capable, qualified, and endorsed proclaimer of theology and comforter of souls.” Today is what you have been looking forward to for years. It’s done. You’ve finished the race that you started some time ago – and all the plaudits are deeply deserved.

But, little birdie, today we also kick you out of the nest. You’ve got your feathers and your certificates, now get out and fly. And, just to be sure, the air is not going to always be smooth, nor the landings soft. It’s called life. Get over it.

The reality is that many of you – perhaps as many as half or more of you – will not complete a career in ministry, either congregational or academic. You will venture out into congregations comprised of members who think it great sport to destroy the lives of ministers. They have no self-respect of their own, and they gladly share that lack of respect with anyone who dares to claim any authority. Because we send you out to speak with the authority of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, that means they will have no respect for you. Because you will be called upon to challenge their mistaken beliefs and discipline them for their ungodly behavior, they will despise and abhor your work. All the while they will play the martyr and manipulate the situations to make it appear that you are the bully, you are the heavy. They will spare no effort to gather followers to their cause, and your job and your ministry mean nothing to them so long as they win the day and the argument.

You think I am kidding – but this is no laughing matter. Many churches (and university administrations) exist for no other purpose than to destroy the lives and futures of those who dare to challenge their power structures. For some of you the destruction will be complete. I say it now without any hesitation, there are some of you here listening to my words today that will not only leave the ministry, but you will leave the faith. Paul essentially said the same thing to the Ephesian elders, so I am sharing this will pretty good company. Ministry is not for everyone, and for some the pain of rejection is so intense, and so debilitating, that there simply is no rehabilitation. My heart breaks for you.

There are a number of you, who, after being so treated, will decide to leave the ministry for a season – but time and circumstances will so converge as to provide you with a second chance at ministry. So, you will discover that after a decade or so, that the fire is still burning, the hope has not been extinguished. You will return, your feathers clipped, your wings a little ruffled, but never-the-less, alive and kicking. Jeremiah preached for years with no tangible results. We can expect no better – unless you believe you can preach more faithfully and more effectively than Jeremiah. But, Jeremiah kept preaching. I pray for those of you who fit this pattern. Life will not be easy, but I pray that at the end it will be fruitful.

And, to be honest, some of you will skip through life unmolested by the demons your classmates will face. You will be given cars and golf club memberships and have your vacations to the Caribbean fully funded by a rich member of the congregation. Just when that happens, please do not come back to the next reunion and brag about it to the other poor schmucks who go from month to month, and sometimes from Sunday to Sunday, wondering if they will have a job on Monday.

Congratulations, graduates. Today is your day. Enjoy it, because tomorrow belongs to the evil one, and he will not rest until he has tested all of you, and has devoured as many as he can. You wanted this, you’ve worked tirelessly for it – now the challenge is yours. You didn’t study all those hours and spend all that money to earn a certificate so you could sit on a bench and look to the clouds.

It’s time to fly.